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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Dear Shira

Shira

Dear Shira:

Why Does My Teacher Refuse To Help?

 

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The Question

Dear Shira:

I've been studying with my belly dancing teacher for about two years, and now I'd like to start performing professionally. I still love going to class and working on my technique, but now I want to start learning how to get jobs, manage hecklers, negotiate fees, and everything else that goes with becoming a professional. But when I asked my teacher to help me take that next step, she refused! She told me she didn't think I'm "ready", but I know that I am. How do I deal with this? Must I learn all these things "the hard way"? 

--Held Back In Hackensack

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Shira

 

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Shira Responds

Dear Hackensack,

You've basically asked two different questions: 1) Why won't your teacher help you break into the world of performing professionally, and 2) How do you get started as a pro?

First, let's talk about the problem you're having with your teacher. It must be very frustrating for you! Unfortunately, many aspiring dancers find that their teachers aren't willing to mentor them in the skills needed to work on the professional circuit. Different teachers have different reasons for this. Before you can solve the problem, it's extremely important for you to make sure you correctly understand why your teacher is saying this.

 

Is It Possible Your Teacher Could Be Right?

If your teacher has been helping other students who have been dancing longer than you prepare to go pro, then it's very important for you to take a close look at how you look in your teacher's eyes. This isn't easy at all, because it may involve facing some unpleasant truths about yourself. It takes a great deal of emotional maturity to consider the possibility that the fault may lie with you, but if you can swallow hard and be brutally honest with yourself, you'll find that this honesty is liberating — it gives you a road map for knowing what to work on!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

The word "ready" is very ambiguous. Here are some insights into what it might mean, but only you can determine which of these (if any) might apply to your situation:

  • "Student-Level" Dance Skill. Be realistic — even though you've been dancing 2 years, have you truly achieved a professional level of dance skill? Most belly dance students actually do not reach the point of being ready for pro work after just 2 years of study. Are you so sure that you're superior to everyone else with similar level of training?
    • Is your technique clean and polished?
    • Are you dancing on the beat?
    • Does your stage presence sparkle?
    • How is your posture?
    • Do your transitions flow smoothly?
    • Do you vary your dance's energy level according to how the music's energy level moves?
    • Do you finish one move before starting the next?
    • Do you have a large amount of experience managing audience interacitons?
    • Have you already performed in a wide variety of situations?
  • Musical Choices. When you perform at the belly dance community's insider events, do you pick musically-interesting pieces with varying energy level and rhythms worthy of a professional dancer, or do you use pop music with a monotonous beat that is easy and fun for a student performer? Do you know how to dance to the types of music that are required for the professional gigs in your area? For example, if you want to dance at the restaurant owned by a Lebanese family, do you know how to dance to the type of music that the owners expect their dancers to use, and does your personal music library contain enough of that music to create a variety of playlists?
  • Student-Level Costumes. What is your costume wardrobe like? Do you own costumes worthy of a professional dancer, or do all your costumes say, "I'm a student who doesn't know what audiences expect from a pro"? See Pro or No: What Makes a Professional Costume? elsewhere on this web site for more detail.
  • Grooming. When you perform at belly dance events, are your hair, nails, and other grooming glamorous enough to meet client requirements? Or do you look like you just came from your hamburger-making job at the fast food restaurant?
Shira
  • Stage Presence. Do you make eye contact with audience members, or do you look down at the floor? Do you convey genuine emotion, or do you have a frozen smile? Do you know how to communicate a mood and energy appropriate to the situation? Do you come across as confident and strong? Do you know how to use breathing techniques to make you more compelling as a performer? Do you know how to manage hostile audience members and hecklers?
  • Has Your Teacher Seen You Use the Above Skills? If your teacher has only seen you do simple solo performances to Western pop music, she will assume that's all you know how to do. She has only seen you perform with dirty hair, chipped fingernails, and no stage makeup, your teacher will assume you would do the same for a pro gig. If you want her to know you're capable of better, you need to show it through the choices you make for recitals, haflas, online video clips, and other environments where she is likely to see you dance.
  • Be Realistic: Are You Unsuitable for Typical Pro Gigs? Your teacher might believe you're "unsuitable" in some way: she may think you are too fat or too old, your costume choices are too sleazy or cheap-looking, your hairstyles too sloppy, etc. Now, I have seen dancers who were a bit voluptuous, or over the age of 60 still do professional gigs in restaurants and elsewhere, but I must be honest with you, they are rare. For example, the over-60 dancers I'm thinking of built a fan club and a reputation when they were in their 30's. If you're not commercially young and thin, you don't need to abandon your dreams. However, you may need to adjust your dreams — instead of seeking restaurant gigs in a town that typically features only young dancers in those venues, maybe you need to think creatively and develop new venues that value what you have to offer. Your teacher may be unaware of those gig opportunities and therefore unable to guide you in how to pursue them.
  • Your Behavior May Be Immature. If you habitually do any of the following, your teacher may think your behavior is too immature to function effectively as a professional dancer:
    • Show up late for class or troupe rehearsal
    • Skip troupe rehearsals frequently
    • Treat your classmates or your teacher rudely
    • Fail to learn class choreographies by the time everyone else has learned them
    • Refuse to purchase music or props that your teacher recommends
    • Refuse to familiarize yourself with Middle Eastern music
    • Refuse to conform with requirements for troupe costumes
    • Insist on doing performances at student showcases that would be described as "self expression" rather than "focused on what will please the audience"
    • Become angry when you don't get your way
    • Fail to follow through and do something you promised to do, such as creating flyers for an upcoming troupe show
  • Lack Business Skills. Maybe your teacher has been dismayed by a very unfavorable business arrangement that you negotiated for the troupe. Maybe the web site you built for the troupe contains many issues with poor spelling and grammar. Maybe your attempt at being a troupe officer failed miserably due to your being very disorganized. Maybe you fail to follow through on promises you made. There are many red flags that a professional dancer may notice in an ambitious student dancer — the more of these you display, the less likely your teacher will be to help you pursue a professional career.
Shira

 

There is a piece of advice given to people working in the corporate world: dress and behave as though you already have the job you hope to be promoted to. Applying this to belly dancing, this means you need to show your teacher that you are taking your professional aspirations seriously — you need to invest in professional-quality costumes, build a collection of music appropriate to a variety of professional gigs, polish up your technique, wear professional-quality stage makeup to every hafla that you perform in, focus your performances on what will be pleasing to the audience rather than on your own personal gratification, etc. In other words, treat every performance you do in a student showcase as if it were a professional gig, in every aspect.

Dress, perform, and behave as though you are already a professional belly dancer.

 

But What If You Really Are Ready?

Suppose you have taken a hard, objective look at yourself, thinking carefully about the above criteria, and you're still convinced you truly are ready to begin working professionally. What other possible reasons could there be for your teacher to refuse to help you go pro?

These may be some possibilities:

  • You're Expecting a Free Ride. Do you expect your teacher to answer all your questions free of charge? Instead, ask if she'd consider teaching these skills in private lessons.
  • Your Teacher Expects Exclusivity. Some teachers will mentor only those students who take classes solely from them, and they won't invest the effort in providing career guidance to students that they know are taking from other teachers too. If this is your teacher's policy, then you will need to consider whether it's worth it to you to meet her criteria.
  • Your Teacher Expects Aspiring Pros to Seek Extra Training. Your teacher might mentor only students who take more than one class per week to show how serious they are about their dance careers. Are you willing to do that?
  • Your Teacher Expects You to "Pay Your Dues". Some teachers believe that a student should not be allowed to become a professional until she has somehow "paid her dues". They may expect that someone should take lessons for "n" years before performing professionally, or they may believe she should perform in "n" student recitals. Yours may think you haven't earned the right yet to do pro work.
  • Your Teacher May Already Be Mentoring "Enough" People. Maybe your teacher is already working with so many "future pros" that she doesn't have time, energy, or gigs to include you in her program. If you stay with her, she may invite you into her circle after someone else leaves. But don't assume that. It's important to ask her why she hasn't yet invited you in. The answer may surprise you.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Shira

 

Is It Her Own Issue?

Your teacher may simply think it's a higher priority to promote herself and her own dance career than it is to make your journey easier for you. In fairness, she has a right to feel this way. She's a dance teacher, not a career counselor. Teachers rarely gain much reward from helping students start doing pro gigs — the only exception would be those teachers who run booking agencies that keep a percentage of the fees for the gigs they find for the dancers they book.

Aside from that, other possibilities include:

  • Busy. Your teacher may be very, very busy and doesn't have a lot of time available outside of class to mentor you.
  • Burned Before. Maybe one of her former students in the past used lies and deception to take gigs away from her. Having been badly hurt once, she may have reacted by deciding not to put herself in a position to let it happen again.
  • Trust. She might not trust you, your motives, and your ethics.
  • Insecurity. Your teacher may be very insecure. Deep in her heart, she may hesitate to give too much encouragement to a promising student because she's afraid she's not good enough to compete against you for work.
  • Not So Successful. Maybe your teacher hasn't been particularly successful herself in running a vibrant career as a paid performer, and she may be embarrassed to admit that to you. She can't teach you what she doesn't know herself!
  • Selfishness. Maybe your teacher is selfish: she feels the need to be The Star, and she doesn't want to share her spotlight with anyone else.
  • Needs the Money. Maybe she makes a significant portion of her income from dance jobs, and she may feel that every other dancer out there is a threat to her livelihood. A performer who requires her dance income to put food on the table might feel it's a bad idea to teach a would-be competitor everything she knows about how to do business successfully.
  • Dog Eat Dog Attitude. It's possible that her teachers refused to help her get started as a pro, and she may think that that's just how it is out there: a dog-eat-dog world, where nobody helps anybody. 
  • Cutthroat. Your teacher might be a cutthroat person herself who got started in the business by stealing jobs from her own teacher! Those who have been either victims or perpetrators of vicious behavior rarely help their students grow into working professionals.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Shira

 

What to Do About It?

First, figure out which of the above truly applies to your situation. This is known as finding the "root cause". A solution that might work for one of these objections could be entirely wrong for another. You need to understand the situation before you can solve it. That is your first lesson in preparing to start your own business as a dance professional.

To be fair, you need to remember that your teacher is a dance teacher, not a professor in a vocational school. Instead of expecting her to spoon-feed you what you want to know, you can take the initiative to find other ways to learn it. For example:

  • If you want to learn generic business skills such as negotiation, marketing, and accounting, then why not take college courses in those topics?
  • If you want to learn how to handle hecklers, accept tips, and delight audience members, then maybe you need to spend more time going to watch a variety of professional dancers perform their shows at restaurants and nightclubs to see how they handle tricky situations.
  • Join some of the web sites where belly dancers gather to talk shop such as forums and social network groups and ask your questions there.

If you like this teacher as a person, and still want to take classes from her, it may also be helpful to think about how to break through her reluctance to help you get started. First, think about the above possible reasons for her refusal to help you, and weigh them against other behavior you have seen from her. Can you figure out which apply? If so, first try to see things her way — would you feel threatened if the roles were reversed? Have you ever done anything in class that she could possibly have misconstrued as predatory or scheming? Once you think you understand why she is refusing to help you, then you can decide whether to try going pro without her help or whether to try having a heart-to-heart talk with her. Above all, you have to earn her trust if you want her help.

Some teachers do help their students become pros. Unfortunately, such teachers do get hurt sometimes by unscrupulous students who take advantage of them and steal jobs from them, so generous ones can be hard to find.

You might ask your dance friends whether they know of a local teacher who would be a better fit than your current teacher with what you're looking for right now. It's best if you can determine that up front — before investing another year in another teacher, call her up before you start taking her classes and ask questions lsuch as "What opportunities do you present for your students to perform? What kind of help do you offer to those who want to become professionals?" Listen carefully to her answer, and consider whether she'll offer the kind of instruction you're looking for.

 

Getting Started

Now that we've talked about the teacher, let's talk about what you can do to get started dancing professionally. It's easier if your teacher will agree to mentor you, but there's nothing to stop you from taking initiative yourself.

If you haven't already done much solo performing, then it's essential to start with gaining a large amount of solo performing experience at events intended for student belly dancers to perform, such as recitals, haflas, festivals, etc. You can also organize small shows with an audience of your own family and friends. Once you have a large amount of this experience, then seek out situations with the general public that work with volunteer entertainers such as hospitals, community festivals, and county fairs. Keep these performances short - no more than 5-10 minutes.

At this stage, do not ever volunteer to dance for free in a situation that would otherwise normally pay entertainers, because doing so will damage your future career in many ways. This is a very, very, important point. For example, many nursing homes will pay a modest fee to their entertainers and therefore would be inappropriate choices for a student dancer volunteering to do free performances.

When you contact these places, ask for the activities director or entertainment coordinator and offer your services. Set the right expectations about yourself — if you haven't done any professional dancing yet, be honest and admit you're a student who wants to do some complimentary shows to build your skills. Tell them one of the benefits you hope to achieve from doing such performances is the development of the business skills and performing experience needed to become a professional dancer someday. 

By starting your public performing career with some "community service" shows appropriate to your current experience level, you'll gain firsthand experience to know what kinds of questions to ask and situations to prepare for when booking a "real" job. These types of performances are also reasonably safe because they're in public places. 

After you have done enough free shows to manage audiences effectively, entertain skillfully, and understand how to handle the back-office administrative tasks, contact local singing telegram companies and see what it would take to start doing gigs for them. Some may require you to audition, while others may ask you for references. Once they agree to give you a try, before your first gig ask if you can accompany one of their other messengers (it can be a singer, doesn't have to be a dancer) on his/her gig so you can see what the overall situation is like.

In addition to building your performing experience, you will need to buy a wardrobe of professional-quality costumes, add more glamor to your stage makeup and grooming, seek instruction in business skills, and build your music collection to include the types of songs your clients will expect.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.

Shira

There are some articles here on my web site about the Business of Belly Dance that may help you plan your transition to professional status.

Good luck planning your next steps!

--Shira

 

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Related Articles

Other articles on this web site related to starting a career as a professional belly dancer include:

  • From Student to... What? Suppose you don't go pro - what are your other options for becoming more deeply involved in belly dance and continuing to perform?

 

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About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.

 

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